Chamber Music: An Essential History

Chamber Music: An Essential History

by Mark A. Radice


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Intended for the music student, the professional musician, and the music lover, Chamber Music: An Essential History covers repertoire from the Renaissance to the present, crossing genres to include string quartets, piano trios, clarinet quintets, and other groupings. Mark A. Radice gives a thorough overview and history of this long-established and beloved genre, typically performed by groups of a size to fit into spaces such as homes or churches and tending originally toward the string and wind instruments rather than percussion. Radice begins with chamber music's earliest expressions in the seventeenth century, discusses its most common elements in terms of instruments and compositional style, and then investigates how those elements play out across several centuries of composers?among them Mozart, Bach, Haydn, and Brahms?and national interpretations of chamber music. While Chamber Music: An Essential History is intended largely as a textbook, it will also find an audience as a companion volume for musicologists and fans of classical music, who may be interested in the background to a familiar and important genre.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472051656
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 01/19/2012
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Mark A. Radice is Professor of Music History, Theory, and Composition at Ithaca College.

Read an Excerpt

Chamber Music

By Mark A. Radice

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2012 Mark A. Radice
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-05165-6

Chapter One

The Nature of Early Chamber Music

Haut and Bas instruments

Music for domestic performance—chamber music—is the focus of this book. Aristocratic homes of medieval Europe often had rather expansive music rooms, but these spaces were generally smaller than a church or theater. Less volume was required to fill them with sounds, and ensembles tended to be smaller.

Early musical instruments were classified either as haut (i.e., high-volume) or bas (low-volume). The high-volume instruments included the trumpet, trombone, shawm, buisine, and so forth. The low-volume instruments included the viol, lute, bandora, chitarrone, and the violin family (which came into common use only in the early seventeenth century), as well as the more subtle wind instruments, such as the recorder and transverse flute.


Idiomatic instrumental and vocal styles came into being during the early Baroque. Older repertoire was constructed according to the laws of voice-leading without regard to instrumentation. This abstract approach to composition led to a singular style that was used both for voices and for instruments. Compositions from this era can often be found in multiple versions, some with texts, others without. Almost any late medieval or Renaissance score could be converted into a piece of instrumental chamber music simply by performing it on bas instruments with suitable ranges for the particular musical lines.


Instruments of the medieval and Renaissance fell out of use during the Classic and Romantic eras, but instrument builders and early music ensembles have stimulated interest in these antiques. Some of the most important early instruments are described in the following list.

Early Musical Instruments

bandora Plucked stringed instrument, similar in construction to the lute but tuned differently, having six or seven courses.

buisine Brass instrument constructed like the ancient tuba, but with a long slim pipe curved round and terminating in a funnel-shaped bell. chitarrone See lute.

cittern Small stringed instrument having a pear shape, flat back, six courses and frets; the cittern was usually strung with wire and played with a plectrum.

clavichord Keyboard instrument in which the string was activated by a tangent attached directly to the key; tone was subtle in the extreme, but the instrument was capable of producing graduated dynamics.

cornetto Curved woodwind instrument with finger holes front and back; conical bore; played with a mouthpiece similar to that of a trumpet, but made of wood and more shallow; available in consort; bass instrument of this sort was curved into the shape of an S to provide access to the finger holes and was therefore called a "serpent."

crumhorn Family of capped double-reed instruments; cylindrical bore; finger holes front and back; shaped like the letter J; literally "bent horn."

curtel Family of double-reed instruments with two parallel conical bores joined at the bottom. The bore often terminated in a small bell. The bass version of the instrument was the ancestor of the modern bassoon. The name is a corruption of the word "curtail."

dulcian See curtel.

dulcimer Stringed instrument with flat soundboard; strings usually activated by striking with hand-held hammers.

harpsichord Keyboard instrument often with multiple sets of strings; the strings were activated by a plectrum that plucked the strings when the key was depressed.

lute Stringed instrument with rounded back and shaped like a halved pear; often with eleven strings in six courses; flat fingerboard with gut frets; smaller instruments of this type called mandola; related to modern mandolin; construction varied widely, especially as regards length of fingerboard as related to body. The chitarrone, a large bass lute, was especially popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a continuo instrument.

nackers Type of kettledrum usually used in pairs and struck with mallets.

pandora See bandora.

panpipes Wind instrument consisting of a number of tuned pipes of different sizes bound together with glue; pipes are typically stopped at one end and blown across the top; also known as "vertical flutes."

psaltry Similar in construction to dulcimer, but strings were activated by plucking with the fingers or with a plectrum.

racket Family of double-reed instruments in which the tube is continuously doubled back on itself in order to form nine verticals alternately joined at top and bottom with U-shaped crooks to yield one continuous column of air. This design was devised to keep the instrument compact.

recorder Most popular type of fipple flute (i.e., end-blown); cylindrical bore; finger holes front and back; available in full consort.

regal A small pipe organ constructed with reed pipes exclusively.

sackbut Ancestor of the modern trombone; distinctive features included a Ushaped slide for changing pitch and a flared bell.

shawm Family of double-reed instrument; ancestor of the modern oboe; finger holes front and back; reed was held directly in the player's lips.

slide trumpet Early brass instrument with the characteristics of a trumpet but without valves or pistons; some flexibility in pitches played was achieved by equipping the instrument with a slide; design proved impractical, consequently the instrument was not widely used.

sordune Family of instruments constructed, like the dulcian, with the tube doubled back on itself. It differed from the dulcian in that it had a cylindrical rather than a conical bore. This feature gave it a somewhat more gentle, mellow sound.

vihuela Stringed instrument with flat front and back; ancestor of modern guitar; flat fingerboard with frets; often as "vihuela da mano."

viol Family of stringed instrument; flat back; fretted fingerboard; typically had six strings; bowed with an underhanded grip (as many present-day double bass players can be seen using). The bow was shaped as a gentle curve, and the tension on the bow hairs was regulated by the player's finger.

virginal English or Italian type of harpsichord constructed in a rectangular case with strings running at right angles to the keys; activated by a plectrum, like the harpsichord.


With the advent of music publishing in the early sixteenth century, optional scoring became increasingly desirable since it resulted in a wider market for printed compositions. Ottaviano de Petrucci issued the Odhecaton, the earliest example of printed music, in 1501. Although the majority of these compositions were originally vocal pieces, the absence of complete texts suggests that they may have been performed by instrumental ensembles.

Similarly confusing cases exist in manuscript sources of the period. In an early sixteenth-century manuscript prepared for King Henry VIII, twenty-four instrumental consort pieces and six puzzle canons are sandwiched among numerous texted part songs. An even dozen of the consorts were written by Henry himself; one each came from the pens of William Cornish and Thomas Farthing. The remaining ten are of unknown authorship. The pieces are about equally divided into works in three and four voices. Most pieces are in duple meter, but triple meter also appears. Imitation appears in most of the consorts.

In published works of the period, optional scoring is often invited by the composer and/or publisher. Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537), who was active at the court of the Emperor Maximilian, issued his Harmoniæ poeticæ in the year 1539. On the title page, we read: "Harmoniæ poeticæ ... most excellently suited for voices as well as for instruments." Similar flexibility is apparent in Orlando Gibbons's First Set of Madrigals and Mottets of 5 Parts: Apt for Viols and Voyces (London, 1612). In both cases, voices and instruments might have been mixed depending upon the resources at hand. In his collection of dance music published in 1599, Anthony Holborne (ca. 1560–1602) indicates that the volume contains "Pavans, galliards, almains and other short æirs both grave, and light, in five parts for viols, violins, or other musicall winde instruments." Optional scoring was common until the late Baroque era. The autograph manuscript of the "Benedictus" of Bach's B-minor Mass, for example, does not specify the obbligato instrument.


Instrumental ensembles of the Renaissance are frequently described with the words "broken" or "full." A broken consort combined instruments of different types. Conversely, the full consort used instruments from a single family. Broken consorts were used more often than full consorts during the Renaissance.

The instrumentation of a broken consort was not standardized, but one of the more common combinations included flute, lute, treble viol, cittern, bass viol, and bandora, the ensemble specified by Thomas Morley (ca. 1557–1602) in his two volumes of Consort Lessons (1599, 1611).

The repertoire for full consort was limited almost exclusively to stringed instruments, especially the viol. From the late sixteenth century to the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the viol family enjoyed great prestige and popularity, particularly in England. The polyphonic chamber music for full viol consort was often written in six parts and required two treble viols, two mean (i.e., middle-range) viols, and two bass viols. A set of six constituted a "chest of viols" because the instruments were stored in "chests" specifically designed as protective cases.


Both broken and full consorts were used throughout the Renaissance for playing dance music. Dances varied from one country to the next, but in most countries it was common to find them in pairs: the first in a slow duple meter, the second in a faster triple or compound meter. In France and England, the most common pair of dances was the pavane and the galliard. In Italy the passamezzo and the saltarello were comparable. In Germany the Tanz and Proportz were a common pairing.

Dance music was nothing new in the sixteenth century, but its availability in printed editions was. Publishers like Tylman Susato (ca. 1500-ca. 1564) in Antwerp, Pierre Attaingnant (ca. 1494–1552) in Paris, Jacques Moderne (ca. 1495–ca. 1562) in Lyons, and Thomas Morley (1557-1602) in London were at the forefront of this enterprise, and their publications preserve hundreds of samples from this repertoire.

During the seventeenth century, newer dances were added to the conventional pairs. The particular dances added depended upon regional trends and preferences. In France, for example, the minuet became very popular; or, in English scores, one might find the hornpipe. Dances assembled into groups are commonly called "suites."


Some of the most fascinating music written during the late Renaissance and the early Baroque achieves its structural unity by treating a particular motif in imitation. The imitation may be free or strict. From the closing decades of the fifteenth century until the beginning of the eighteenth, the most important genre using free imitation was the canzona.

The word canzona means "song," but most canzonas are instrumental pieces. The explanation for this disparity actually reveals the origin and typical stylistic features of the canzona. During the high Renaissance period, Josquin des Pres (ca. 1440–1521), Pierre de la Rue (ca. 1460–1518), Loyset Compère (ca. 1445–1518), and other Flemish composers wrote secular part songs called chansons, which employed motivic imitation in some sections but free counterpoint or homophony in others.

The chanson had no predetermined form, and the music of its various sections was freely invented to accord with the poetry being set. These secular part songs quickly became popular in Italy, sometimes with their French texts, but more often without them. The Italians referred to a piece of this sort as a canzona francese, or "French song."

In many cases, these "songs" were performed on instruments rather than sung. Italian composers soon began writing canzonas that had no texts at all; instead, these canzonas simply reproduced the characteristic interplay of voices, the lively rhythms, and the contrasting sections that characterized the French chanson.

Florentio Maschera (ca. 1540–ca. 1584) and his teacher, Claudio Merulo (1533–1604), played an important role in the history of the canzona. Merulo's organ canzonas served as the compositional models for Maschera, but it was Maschera who first published a set of canzonas written especially for an instrumental ensemble. His volume entitled Libro primo de canzoni da sonare a quattro voce (First book of canzonas to be played in four parts) was the first of hundreds that used the designation da sonare to specify instrumental performance.

The Italian word sonare means "to sound" in the sense of producing sound from an instrument. In Renaissance and Baroque scores, the word is used in contrast to cantare, "to sing"; hence, instrumental music carried the instruction da sonare, and vocal music was designated as repertoire da cantare. Eventually the cumbersome designation canzona da sonare was shortened to the more familiar word sonata.

The hundreds of composers who contributed to the canzona repertoire cannot be discussed here, but many fascinating examples of the genre can be found in collections like the Canzoni alla Francese a quattro voci per sonare of Adriano Banchieri (1568–1634), the Canzoni da sonare a quattro, et otto voci of Florio Canale (ca. 1550–ca. 1603), Il primo libro delle canzoni a quattro voci per sonare con ogni sorte de stromenti musicali by Tarquinio Merula (ca. 1594–1665), and the Canzoni a 3: doi violini, e violone, col suo basso continuo of Maurizio Cazzati (ca. 1620–1666). Cazzati's collection was later reprinted as Canzoni da sonare a tre.

These canzonas reveal a growing distinction between vocal and instrumental music, which led ultimately to idiomatic styles of writing suited to specific instruments and voice types. This stylistic refinement was one of the major achievements of the Baroque era.

In their musical settings, many of the chanson texts were fitted to a dactylic rhythm in duple meter. This rhythm and meter came to be a characteristic feature of the earliest instrumental canzonas. The eleven canzonas contained in Banchieri's 1596 collection, for example, are uniformly in common meter. Canzona subjects are energetic, often beginning with a dactylic rhythm.

Duple meter was predominant in the earliest canzonas, but later examples of the genre frequently introduced contrasting sections in triple or compound meter. Very often, sections were set off one from another by dynamic contrasts or by varied tempo indications. Imitative sections tended to be in lively tempos, whereas passages in free counterpoint or homophony were at a slower pace. Precise instrumentation was seldom indicated in the scores of canzonas da sonar.

Formal designs within canzonas were as varied and numerous as were the composers. In Banchieri's canzonas, two or three sections may be related thematically and call for repeats. Other pieces consist of continuous manipulation of a single motif. Ordinarily, a single voice states the primary motif, which then appears at regular intervals in the imitating voices. Contrapuntal sections in which all voices commence simultaneously are rare. A distinctive feature of Banchieri's collection is his use of titles for each canzona.


Excerpted from Chamber Music by Mark A. Radice Copyright © 2012 by Mark A. Radice. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 The Nature of Early Chamber Music 5

2 The Crystallization of Genres during the Golden Age of Chamber Music 24

3 Classical Chamber Music with Wind Instruments 55

4 The Chamber Music of Beethoven 62

5 The Emergence of the Wind Quintet 83

6 Schubert and Musical Aesthetics of the Early Romantic Era 90

7 Prince Louis Ferdinand and Louis Spohr 102

8 Champions of Tradition: Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms 114

9 Nationalism in French Chamber Music of the Late Romantic Era: Franck, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Faure, and Ravel 171

10 National Schools from the Time of Smetana to the Mid-Twentieth Century 189

11 Nationalism and Tradition: Schoenberg and the Austro-German Avant-Garde 209

12 The Continuation of Tonality in the Twentieth Century 224

13 Strictly Confidential: The Chamber Music of Dmitri Shostakovich 245

14 Two Fugitives from the Soviet Bloc: Gyorgy Ligeti and Karel Husa 263

15 Benchmarks: Chamber Music Masterpieces since circa 1920 274

Table of Chamber Pieces According to Ensemble size 297

Notes 315

Index 345

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